By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D., NRL Director of Education & Research
Editor’s note. While my family and I are on vacation, we are running some of our favorite NRL News Today stories from the last four months, entries from our “Roe at 40″ series, such as this one, and an occasional update. This story, from the September 2001, edition of National Right to Life News talks about the startling fact that the number of repeat abortions was edging up toward half. This is one of those facts about abortion that is known by only a sliver of the general population.
According to the latest report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly half of the women who had an abortion in 1997 had had at least one previous abortion. Nearly one in five of those women had undergone at least two abortions.
In its December 8, 2000, report of state and national abortion statistics for the year 1997, the CDC found that 45.5% of women having abortions reported having one, two, three, or more previous abortions. Only a little bit more than half (52%) were reported as never having had a previous abortion.
The status of the remaining 2.5% was listed as “unknown.” As far as can be determined from available data, this is believed to be the highest number of repeat abortions the CDC has ever recorded.
Over a quarter of the women (26.8%) reported having one previous abortion. About one in nine (11.2%) reported two, while 7.4% reported having three or more previous abortions.
Not every state reported data on previous abortions to the CDC. While incomplete, the data, drawn from 37 state health departments and New York City, gives valuable insight into the state of abortion in America and trends among abortion clinic customers.
Hawaii (61.5%), Maryland (70.5%), New Jersey (53%), and New York (56.5%) reported the highest numbers of abortion repeaters. The city of New York, whose data was also listed separately, had a 63.7% repeat rate. It also had the highest percentage of any reporting areas indicating three or more previous abortions (17.1%).
While in the early days of Roe, few women reported having previous abortions (according to the National Center for Health Statistics, 13.2% in 1974, and 18.1% in 1975), that number grew steadily through the 1970s and 1980s until it leveled off in the 42-45% range in the 1990s.
The abortion lobby often advances the claim that some 43% of all American women will have at least one abortion by the time they are 45 years old. National Right to Life has never been able to confirm such a statistic. The high number of repeat abortions raises questions about precisely how they are counted and distributed among the population of women as a whole.
What is clear, however, is that with repeat abortions approaching 50%, America’s abortion clinics are increasingly relying on repeat customers for their business. Intimations by the abortion lobby that women turn to abortion only in circumstances of distress or dire emergency are belied by the fact that a large number of women are obviously using abortion as a backup means of birth control.
The odd silver lining in these statistics on repeat abortions is that their persistence in a time of overall decline in the number of annual abortions in the U.S. It fell from 1.6 million in 1990 to about 1.3 million in 1973  and is an indication that the abortion industry is attracting fewer first-time victims. The younger generation isn’t buying abortion the way their mothers, aunts, and older sisters did.
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For example, when abortion was first legalized in the 1970s, the distribution of abortions between teens, women in their early 20s, and women in the upper end of their reproductive years was about one-third for each category. Recent statistics show widening gaps between these groups. Teens accounted for just one-fifth (20.1%) of all abortions while women 25 years and over approached half (48.2%) in 1997.
While there is a long way to go, these statistics hint that abortion as a cause or even as an option worth considering is losing steam among the younger generation. While older women may be keeping the clinics open, it is increasingly obvious that abortion is not the choice of the new generation.
1. The published report actually lines up and counts figures for the state of North Carolina in the wrong columns. This mistake both makes it appear as if the state has a much higher repeat rate than other states and makes the overall numbers of repeat abortions for the U.S. appear higher. A 9/7/01 call to the CDC confirmed the shift of figures, and statistics in this article reflect the corrected totals.
2. This supposes, of course, that women would have been forthcoming with doctors about their previous abortions in the first place, an assumption that may not hold, given the regret and denial that often accompanies abortion.
3. These figures are from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which surveys individual abortion clinics directly and seems to have a better overall count. All other figures from the 1997 CDC report, which relies on reports from state health departments.